A growing number of people in the United States believe that global warming is happening, however, the number of people who feel it is a threat to their well-being is still fairly low. According to a 2016 Yale Climate Opinion study, 70% of US residents believe climate change is happening. However, only 40% feel they will be directly harmed by climate change. Most American’s believe that climate change will harm developing countries (63%) and/or future generations (70%) Check out the full study here.
Most American’s do not see climate change as a risk to their everyday life and in turn do not have a sense of urgency to deal with climate change. Much of this lack of concern can be explained with by what is termed the “recency” effect. The most recent an event, the more likely it will be in the memory of an individual and will have the greatest impact on current and future decision making. More recently occurring and commonly occurring events are going to hold the most weight. If there has not been a recent event, such as a drought, wildfire, flood, hurricane, etc. then the threat of these events recede back in a person’s memory prompting less urgency to deal with these threats. Further, these severe weather events are still perceived to be one-off, rare events. Scientists have been reluctant to tie any specific weather event to climate change. For severe weather events to have a greater impact on one’s sense of risk related to climate change, then these weather events must become a part of a climate change narrative. The EPA has a nice explanation of how we can start making the connection between severe weather events and climate change. You can learn more about this linkage here.
Cities have come and gone due to significant changes in weather patterns. Ancient tribes such as the Ancestral Puebloans in Mesa Verde are rumored to have abandoned their Cliff Palace due to significant changes in weather, particularly drought, making life there unsustainable.
The Ancestral Puebloans were forced to migrate away from their lands due to the normal climate cycle and weather patterns. Overtime, humans have become more resilient and adaptable to normal climate cycles and weather patterns. However, more recent human industrial activity is now directly impacting the climate, resulting in more rapid climate change and more severe weather events. This increase in intensity and severity of events are forcing us to think more closely about how we sustain our communities.
As we see an increasing amount significant weather events, the reality of a rapidly changing climate is becoming more apparent. To help prepare for climate change and its impacts, cities are actively working on developing adaptation plans. Some cities are receiving significant support from the Rockefeller Foundation with its 100 Resilient Cities program. Since 2013 the 100 Resilient Cities program has been adding cities. It added its last cohort in 2016. Participating in this program provides resources to the city to bring in a Chief Resilience Officer (CRO). The CRO leads the resilience strategy development and deployment effort. If you are not part of the program but want to build your city’s resilience, don’t fret, the 100 Resilient Cities program provides some resources to get started. Also, if you want some good examples of UScities taking action, check out the activity of Seattle, Nashville and Pittsburgh in 2017. Pittsburgh is making the biggest splash with the actual release of its resilience strategy in March called ONEPGH.
Although there is no uncertainty that climate change is happening and that the significant addition of GHG by human activity is accelerating this change globally, there is still some questions on what will be the impact on a regional and local scale. The global models largely agree on a macro level of potential climate outcomes, however, it becomes more uncertain as to what climate impacts will be seen in communities. With limited budgets, a growing number of certain/known fiscal and social responsibilities, it is very difficult for a city to take action on climate specific problems. They know these problems are coming, it definitely could be more than one, but which one should they focus on adapting too? Extreme heat? Drought? Flooding? All three events were experienced in Houston in the last few years. How does a city prioritize when it is difficult to determine the impact and the actual vulnerability of the city to any specific climate induced event?
This uncertainty at the city level is resulting in an adaptation gap. The gap is the difference between existing adaptation efforts and adaptation need. This gap is largely a result of an inability to prioritize specific adaptation actions due to uncertainty as to what the near and long-term climate impacts will look like, as well as a difficulty in assessing the short and long term cost/benefit of taking a specific adaptation action. There is growing effort in the climate adaptation field that work to overcome this gap. The first effort is to better understand the efficacy of adaptation outcomes. Carelton and Hsiang’s (2016) recent work looks at determining a better methodology to determine when, where and why climate adaptation is successful and to better quantify how adaptation related investments today will impact future social and economic outcomes. In parallel with this effort, Chen et al (2016) are developing a framework that helps local communities prioritize their adaptation efforts. This framework helps cities to identify and frame risks to the community by taking into account the level of uncertainty of any specific event occurring and the magnitude of such event. Second, the framework helps to identify specific options that a city can consider for each event. These options range from a “no regrets” option, i.e. these solutions solve existing city problems and the city would be taking action regardless of climate factors; to tertiary adaptation options that require large scale investment and irreversible outcomes. The benefit of such a framework allows cities to assess their vulnerability based on the certainty and magnitude of specific climate events and to begin to prioritize options to deal with the events.
In a time of increasing climate risk and smaller city coffers, it is imperative that cities are knowledgeable of the frameworks and tools available to protect their community.
On April 25, 2016, 750 Astrodomes worth of water fell in Northwest Houston is less than 12 hours. The City was not prepared for such an event and neither is most of the rest of the country. The climate is changing more drastically and rapidly than ever before. I am starting this blog to develop a deeper discussion on climate adaptation and mitigation among key decision makers.
The assumption made here is that human activity is directly linked to the accelerating change in our climate. There is no scientific debate on this issue. The debate and uncertainty comes from knowing exactly what and how communities and business need to prepare for and adapt to in the near and mid-term. Adaptation will require significant investment. Choosing the wrong path, i.e. adapting for anticipated floods but experiencing severe drought, is a costly decision that results in an underprepared community that must now react to their existing climate reality. Also, this uncertainty of what to prepare for may lead to inaction. This decision to not make a decision can be just as costly.
The expectation here is that we can start working toward and identifying the appropriate frameworks and decision tools that may result in more effective climate adaptation and mitigation efforts.